Hooves pounded on the dirt like thunder as Adlis and Kio’s horses raced full speed toward Embraus. The forest whizzed by so quickly that it made Adlis’ vision blur, and the wind stung her eyes so much that she elected to close them entirely.
Za was sitting up front this time anyway, and since he didn’t have any eyes for the wind to blow into he was naturally more suited to this kind of riding. That didn’t change the fact that he had next to no experience riding horses, and certainly not at this speed. Adlis had her arms wrapped around his waist, and could feel him trembling, partially from terror, but mostly from the constant shifting of the horse beneath him.
Adlis shared his fear. If she were to lose her grip and fall, or if the horse were to trip, she had no doubt that the crash would prove fatal. Kio was still in the lead though, her own horse frothing at the mouth, and she gave no signs of slowing down. It was as if she planned to go through Embraus’ gates at full charge, trampling anyone in her way.
In fact, Adlis thought, opening her eyes just long enough to catch a glimpse of the mad Ranger in front of them, I’d be surprised if that’s not what she’s planning to do!
Then again, that was Kio’s husband they were racing to save. Did Adlis blame her for her reckless actions? Not one bit.
“My children!” Brother Gestaul spread his arms wide, addressing the crowd. The noise died down a little, but didn’t go away entirely. The priest went on, uncaring, “You have gathered this morning to witness the death of one of the most despicable creatures on Haroz! A traitor to Embin, and to all things good and natural! That man,” he pointed at spindly finger at Kulgan, “stands accused of being a Twister!”
A roar of outrage came from the crowd, striking Kulgan with the force of a tidal wave. The people were being kept safely at bay by Gestaul’s guards, but he could still see torches, pitchforks, and—a rock hit him square in the forehead. He winced, and had to close his eye when a trickle of blood ran down his face. As if that was their cue, more and more people began to throw things at Kulgan. Stones, rotten fruits and vegetables, and other foul smelling things that Kulgan didn’t want to think about.
Gestaul didn’t say a word to stop them. He simply stepped out of the way, a satisfied smile on his face.
Adlis’ horse was gasping for breath by the time the walls of Embraus rose before them.
The poor thing’s going to die of exhaustion! she thought. As much as she didn’t like that, what bothered her even more was the fact that, should their horses die, they would have to outrun Gestaul, his guards, and whoever else chased after them on foot.
They wouldn’t make it out of the city gates.
A single guard waited outside the city gates. Adlis had to give him credit. Had she seen two horses charging straight at her, one of them carrying a Gray Ranger, she would have scampered out of the way, squealing like a frightened child. Instead, he held up his hand and bravely yelled, “Halt!”
Kio swung her rifle with one hand, clobbering him in the face with its butt. He fell like all the bones in his body had suddenly vanished, and Kio went on without a backwards glance. Adlis felt a twinge of unease.
I hope she didn’t just kill him. He was only doing his job, after all.
The transition from hard packed dirt to cobblestones under her horse’s hooves was startling, and Adlis squeezed Za harder. Not that it would matter—if the horse fell, they were both going with it.
“Miss Adlis, I can’t breathe!” Za gasped.
Adlis didn’t loosen her grip one bit. The city was flashing past her just as fast as the forest had been, and now there were people in the streets to get in their way. Luckily most of them saw Kio coming, and had time to jump out of the way. By the time Adlis went past, the roads were already cleared.
Even so, Adlis couldn’t help but notice the man lying in the middle of the road, crying and holding his leg.
We’ll be lucky if we even make it to Kulgan. At this rate, she’ll have the city guards after us before we’re even halfway there!
There wasn’t anything she could do about it, though. She had come too far to turn back now—literally, she realized when she glanced back and saw the gate they had come through slam closed.
I hope you know what you’re doing, Kio!
It was several minutes before Brother Gestaul extended his hands.
“Enough!” he shouted.
Once again, while the noise didn’t entirely abate, the crowd at least fell still, and the barrage of projectiles finally stopped. Kulgan, suspended almost three feet off the ground by the Final Shame, was nearly ankle deep in the garbage that had been thrown at him. His clothes were stained with every foul smelling thing imaginable, and he now bled from three more wounds.
“Enough,” Gestaul said again. He spoke more quietly now, but his voice still carried perfectly across the crowd. As rioted as they were, Kulgan doubted any of them realized how unnatural the priest’s voice was. They were so focused on the Twister on display that they probably hadn’t even noticed Gestaul’s skin.
Gestaul went to stand in front of Kulgan, nonchalantly kicking debris out of his way with every step, and turn to face his audience. “This creature has committed the ultimate sin against Embin. By accepting the Black Moon’s power into his body, he has cast away the love and protection of our Lord. He stands before us, not as a man, but as a Twister. What is the only punishment worthy of such a monstrosity?”
“DEATH!” the crowd chorused as one.
“Is there anyone here who would speak for his defense?”
For once, the crowd fell as silent as a snowy winter night. No one moved, no one coughed, nobody even dared breathe loudly for fear of attracting the priest’s attention by mistake. Gestaul let the silence stretch for a few seconds, allowing the crowd to stew in their uneasiness, before finally giving a nod of satisfaction.
“Very well,” he said, turning decisively to Kulgan. “Then let his punishment commence.”
The crowd erupted into chaos once again. Their voices mixed together into an unintelligible wave of sound, but Kulgan could still make out individual threats. One man wanted him shot, another demanded he be burned alive. He even heard someone call for Gestaul to throw Kulgan to the crowd and let them kill him themselves. So much rage, so much hate.
And all of it justified.
Once again, Gestaul raised his hand, and the audience fell silent.
“I understand your anger, and share it with you. But first,” he reached to the pendant hanging from Kulgan’s neck, still in full view of the crowd, “let him be unmasked.”
“D’yargo!” Adlis cursed under her breath as their horses rounded a corner and found no fewer than seven city guards blocking their path. This street had been cleared of civilians, and each guard was mounted on horseback, rifles aimed right at her and Kio.
“Fire!” shouted the one in the front.
All seven rifles went off, their explosions ringing through the abandoned street, but before Adlis even had a chance to scream a wall of water appeared out of nowhere, rising up out of the ground like a geyser the exact width of the road. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the water hardened into solid ice. Seven cracks appeared in the ice as he guards’ bullets flew straight into it just to be stopped in their tracks.
“What the—” Adlis exclaimed, but then she looked down at Kio’s wrist, and the glowing blue veins that contrasted perfectly against her dark skin.
She has a Lisharum pendant! she realized.
Kio waved her hand, letting the ice melt back into water. Seven more bullets were released, all from Kio’s gun this time, zipping straight and true through the wall of water. Seven dead guards toppled from their horses, which panicked and bolted. A second wave of Kio’s hand evaporated the water. She and Adlis raced through, and once the last of the guards’ horses had bolted the ground was as dry as the Taksten.
Gestaul grabbed the pendant and tore it from Kulgan’s neck. Kulgan’s body lurched, an involuntary attempt to get it back, but of course the Final Shame kept him from moving even an inch. He grunted when his muscles continued to spasm, refusing to accept that there was nothing he could do to get the pendant back. His pendant. His beautiful, wonderful, ugly, and horrible pendant.
“Behold!” the priest shouted, holding it above his head. “The body of our enemy! Though it may be but a small piece, its evil is not diminished. But was it this stone that turned a man into the monster we see before us? No!”
Kulgan ground his teeth together, his eyes bugging maniacally from his skull. He knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that this was exactly what Gestaul wanted from him. The priest wanted his addiction to take over, for him to show the crowd the animal that was hidden just beneath the surface. That part of him tried to fight, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the rabid thing that wanted its d’yargo pendant back! The morning sun reflected off of the pendant’s shiny black surface as it swayed and swung on its cord. Calling to him, cursing him, comforting him, taunting him. He hated it. He loved it.
“This stone may have the power to change your body,” the priest went on, “but it does not change who you are. No, all this accursed pendant did was reveal to the world who the man truly was—what he truly was!”
Give it back. Give it back! GIVE IT BACK!
“He was ashamed of his true self, as any creature would be, so he tried to hide it underneath his human skin yet again.” Gestaul pointed an accusing finger at him without turning around. “But one cannot hide from Embin, and by Embin’s power he has been brought to me to receive justice. Praise be to the Ordermaker!”
“Praise be!” echoed the people.
Gonna tear you apart and feed you to... feed you to me and… gonna kill… GIVE IT BACK!
Gestaul turned to face him. “And now, to serve as a warning to all of you not to follow his path, let this despicable creature be unmasked for all to see!”
Three miles later, a trail of bodies led the way to Adlis’ horse, and Kio was still adding to it. The guards hadn’t formed a wall the way they had before, and had now resorted to hiding around corners and inside windows, sticking their heads out to take a couple of shots at them before ducking into safety again. The Ranger was still picking them off one by one, but this was obviously a challenge even for her. Not a single enemy escaped her rifle’s sights, but the growing spot of blood on her left sleeve attested to the fact that she wouldn’t be able to keep this up for long.
At Adlis’ urging, Za had slowed their horse. It was still galloping at a breakneck pace, and they were still going fast enough to keep Kio in sight, but this far back at least the guards would focus all their attention on Kio. That wasn’t a very encouraging thought, though, since all it would take was for her to miss a single shot, and the guard’s next bullet would be for her or Za.
An ominous clack-clack-clack rose above the pounding of hooves behind them. Twisting around in the saddle, Adlis’ ears paled when she saw the pack of kashnilas racing toward them.
There were four of them. This breed was slightly smaller and thinner than the ones that had pulled her wagon in the Taksten. These ones had been bred for a single, specific purpose: to hunt criminals. Metal helmets adorned their heads, hinged at the jaw to open and close with their mouths. Metal spikes, like teeth, lined the edges. They were fast and they were sleek, like a pack of wolves, and they ran without any of her horse’s panicked clumsiness. She could tell just by looking in their beady black eyes that all they saw when they looked at her was food.
Adlis looked ahead to see that Kio was still busy shooting the guards that were in their path. They required all of her attention, and she didn’t have a single bullet to spare to help her and Za. Suddenly, pulling away from her seemed like incredibly stupid idea. She looked back again—just as the lead kashnila pounced at her!
There was a bang, and the lizard fell to the ground, dead, and was quickly left behind with all the other bodies. That shot hadn’t come from Kio, though. It had come from…
“Za?” she asked in disbelief.
The simmk twisted around in his seat and held something out for her. It was a pistol—one of Kulgan’s, she realized. The second gun was in his other hand.
“Miss Kio gave ‘em to me before we left,” he explained. “Said to keep hold of ‘em for when we got Mr.—look out!”
Adlis barely had time to duck before Za fired again. The second kashnila squawked in pain, but kept coming.
“Take it!” Za ordered her, thrusting the other gun at her again. “I can’t shoot and steer at the same time!”
With trembling hands, Adlis took the gun. It was cold, and heavier than she expected. She stared at it with wide eyes. She had never fired a gun in her life. That was a man’s job, not something for women.
Somebody obviously needs to tell Kio that, she thought, looking up just as the Ranger shot a man through an open window. He toppled out of it, screaming, until he landed on the cobblestone street below.
“Miss Adlis!” Za’s frantic voice shook her out of her thoughts, and she whirled around in the saddle to see another one of the kashnilas dart in to take a bite of her horse. With a shriek, she held Kulgan’s gun out in front of her in both hands and squeezed the trigger. It went off, throwing her hands up above her head, and she fell backwards into Za. The horse panicked at the sound, lurching to the right, and Adlis began to roll in the other direction—
“Gotcha!” Za yelled, grabbing her by the back of her dress just before she fell from the horse’s back. With a grunt he pulled her back up just as a third kashnila came in to bite her. Its metal jaws clanked as they snapped together, nearly taking Adlis’ hand off. Adlis pointed the gun at it and fired. The lizard rocketed to the side, striking the building beside them, and fell, never to move again.
Three down, one to go. But as Adlis pointed Kulgan’s gun at the final kashnila, it seemed to figure out what she was doing and leaped into the air. Its powerful back legs carried it the last few feet—and it landed right on the horse’s backside, its armored face mere inches away from Adlis’. Its claws dug into the horse’s flesh, making the beast cry out in pain. It skidded to a halt, nearly losing its balance, and reared up on its hind legs. The kashnila remained perched on its back, but Adlis fell straight into it, the side of her head striking its scaly chest, and Za fell on top of her. Cawing triumphantly, it lunged forward, jaws open wide—
“Za, duck!” Adlis screamed.
—and sank its teeth into the horse’s neck, narrowly missing Za.
The horse thrashed and whinnied, its blood spattering on Adlis and Za as it fought to shake the predator off, and then collapsed. Embraus was a blur for a second, and then she grunted when she hit the ground. She rolled, and came to a stop on her back, facing the fallen horse. She scrambled backwards, trying to take stock of herself. Her body was aching, but not enough to make her think she’d broken any bones. She glanced into the distance just in time to see Kio vanish around the corner, as if she didn’t even notice they were gone.
She left us! Adlis thought, stunned. She’d had a feeling Kio would abandon them at the first given opportunity. Her only goal was to rescue Kulgan, after all. That didn’t make watching it happen any easier, though.
The kashnila twisted the horse’s neck, snapping its bones and finishing it off, and then turned to look at its next victim.
“And lo, the justice of Embin shall destroy the wicked, the evil, and the unnatural.” Gestaul clasped Kulgan’s pendant between his forefinger and his thumb.
“Give it back, you d’yargo puken!” Kulgan shouted, saliva spraying from his mouth in rage.
“Let none who pervert the Ordermaker’s ways walk upon Haroz. Dispense upon them worldly justice, so that Embin might dispense divine justice beyond.”
Gestaul turned just long enough for Kulgan to see the wicked gleam in his eyes—and then he drove the pendant into Kulgan’s chest.
The pain lanced through Kulgan, shocking him out of his raging stupor. He could feel Vashiil’s power oozing through his body, stronger than he had ever felt it before. His body was practically exploding with changes. The crowd was gasping in terror, some of the women screaming.
The lucidity didn’t last long, though. He could feel himself fading. He thoughts became hazy, and then nonexistent. It was like going to sleep, but… not. He was simply… going… away...
“Za!” Adlis screamed.
The simmk hadn’t been as lucky as her. When their horse had collapsed, his leg had been underneath it. Now, with the combined weight of the horse and the kashnila standing on top of it, he was trapped and completely at the ravenous lizard’s mercy.
“Miss Adlis!” he screamed back at her, holding out his hand for her to grab. She couldn’t reach it, and it wouldn’t have done any good even if she could. She wasn’t strong enough to pull him out from under the horse. She couldn’t just leave him there, though. But what on Haroz could she possibly…
The gun! Where had the gun gone? Looking around wildly, she spotted it a few feet away—right next to the kashnila’s foot. Adlis froze, her ears turning white. If she got that close, it would forget about Za and come for her. Could she grab the gun and fire it before it attacked?
“Miss Adlis!” Za shouted again. The kashnila opened its mouth, saliva dribbling down between its jaws, and raised its head to lunge.
She was out of time. Adlis sprinted for the gun, not allowing herself to think about what she was doing. The kashnila saw her out of the corner of its eye and cawed threateningly, warning her not to come close to its food. She ignored it, making a beeline for the pistol. The lizard seemed to jump in surprise when she didn’t skitter away in fear, and let out an angry squawk.
Adlis ducked down and grabbed the pistol, whipping it back up—to find the kashnila only an inch in front of her. With a frightened squeak she raised the gun, taking a step backwards and squeezing the trigger. Her heel caught on the leg of one of the fallen guards, though, and she fell backwards, the bullet going high above the kashnila’s head. Her head struck the ground hard enough to make shadows dance in her vision. The gun fell from her limp fingers.
“No, no, no!” she screamed as the kashnila loomed over her, opening its mouth, showing off both its real teeth and its metal ones. It cawed softly, as if laughing at her pathetic attempt to best it, and—
The kashnila’s head snapped to the side, and it dropped. Adlis blinked a couple of times. What had just… was she…
“Get up and help me get this d’yargo horse off your friend!” a familiar voice commanded her. Adlis shook her head and looked to see Kio struggling to lift the horse off of Za.
“You- You came back!” she exclaimed.
“Really?” Kio snapped. “I hadn’t noticed. Now get up and help me before I leave you behind for real!”
Adlis wanted to ask what had spurred this sudden change of heart, but knew she shouldn’t. Instead, she got back to her feet, shaking off the remaining dizziness, and ran to help. Between the two of them, they were able to lift the horse up just enough for Za to free his leg.
“Th- Thank you!” he said, shaking Kio’s hand with terrified vigor. “Thank you, Missus Kio! I thought I was a dead simmk there!”
Kio yanked her hand away and went back to her horse. The poor thing looked like it barely had the strength to stand, much less carry Kio any further. Kio must have been thinking the same thing because, with a frown, she raised her rifle and shot it between the eyes.
“Kio!” Adlis exclaimed, watching with wide eyes as the horse crumpled to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
“What?” the Gray Ranger demanded, whirling around. “You think that animal’s life is more important than Kulgan’s?”
Adlis blinked. “No, of course not! I- I just… what are we going to escape on now?”
“This is the biggest city in Tassendile. There are thousands of other horses here.”
“Shut up and come on, if you’re coming.” Kio turned and began to make her way down the street. The whole scene felt surreal now that the sound of gunfire had ceased. “I found the execution. It’s just a little ways further.”
Adlis’ ears paled. “And Kulgan’s…”
“He’s alive, for now at least. That’s why I’m not waiting around for you anymore, your royal puffiness.”
“What did you just call me?”
Kio was already running, though, rifle gleaming in the morning sunlight. Adlis looked at Za.
“You don’t have to come if you don’t wa—hey! Where are you going?”
“To go help Mr. Kulgan!” Za yelled over his shoulder, rounding the corner Kio had just taken.
Adlis hesitated. Guards and kashnilas were nothing. The real danger still waited for them. If they really went through with this, and snatched a Twister away from the Church of Embin themselves, she doubted the danger would ever truly end. Brother Gestaul would hunt them to the edges of Haroz. She shuddered, thinking about the Ashen Priest’s touch.
The thought of running away never once occurred to her, though. Not after everything Kulgan had done for them. He may have been grumpy and offensive, but he was her friend.
Raising her dress a little, Adlis chased after Kio and Za.
She wasn’t leaving Embraus without him!
NEXT TIME: Place ya bets, place ya bets! Kio, Adlis, and Za vs. Brother Gestaul! Who will come out on top? Place ya bets here!